By Jen Kohlenberger
Mental health struggles can feel absolutely overwhelming at times. If you’re at the point where your mental health is impacting your daily life, it’s going to take more than some simple internet tips to be well. When we’re in distress, we’re looking for a major solution. The reality is that struggles from dysregulation cannot be fixed immediately – it takes time, expertise, and effort.
The good news is that there are a few things that you can do right now that will give you a bit of relief and help even more as you incorporate them over time. These aren’t meant to be a bandaid for your problems, but rather a support while you navigate your more intensive treatment and integrative mental health journey.
1. Get sunlight. Sunlight is good for your body and your mind. Specifically, it helps to regulate the brain production of serotonin (boosts mood and keeps you calm and focused), and melatonin (helps you sleep). Getting outside between 7am and 11am is the best time to get sunlight that will support a healthy sleep-wake cycle, which in turn will improve your overall mental health. Between 10-30 minutes of sunlight will also provide a healthy dose of Vitamin D, which is known to improve mood and reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.
2. Read or listen to a book. There are a number of self-improvement books out there written by experts in the field of mental health. Reading has many health benefits and you can experience those benefits even by reading only 15 minutes a day. If you’re more of a fiction fan, you’ll get many of the same benefits, however, I recommend finding subject matter that is relevant to you right now. There are numerous books about CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) that can provide insight to what you’re going through, with practical applications. Don’t wait in despair until you find a therapist when you can access helpful information today.
3. Drink water. Hydration is imperative for your brain to function. It impacts thought and memory processes as well as hormone production and neurotransmitter support. Hydration has been linked to concentration as well. Not to mention the other physical benefits of drinking enough water. This one can be hard for some people, but it's a relatively simple thing that can have a significant impact.
4. Listen to a guided meditation. Meditation is a great practice, and if you are new to it, voice-guided audio tracks are extremely helpful. Thanks to YouTube and Apps like Insight Timer, there are hundreds of them readily available to us.
I’ll be honest, when I first started my mental health journey, nothing turned me off more than the word meditation. I found it nearly impossible to relax my mind in the state I was in. As someone who suffers from sensorimotor OCD and specifically a breathing obsession, sitting and focusing on my breath was a living nightmare that was the quickest way to a panic attack. I found that most meditations focus on breath, so these were the last things I wanted to listen to.
What I didn’t know is that there are many varieties of guided mindfulness techniques that I could handle. Two of my favorites (now) are body scan and progressive muscle relaxation. It took some time for me to find versions that didn’t talk much about breath, but they are out there. (Update: Post-treatment I am able to listen to breathing meditations and focus on my breathing without having panic attacks. Yay!)
5. Decrease blue light at night. All of our screens emit blue light which tells our brain to be awake and alert. So if you’re using screens in the evening, especially if your brain is already dysregulated, you are causing your brain confusion and probably experiencing sleep disruption. This can be a tough one for people who feel they need television to wind down at night or who work on their computers at night or even those who just find comfort in mindlessly scrolling on Instagram or TikTok on their phone before bed. While some of these habits may be hard to break, one immediate way to reduce blue light is by changing the settings on your devices to reduce it. There are filters that can be applied to most devices to accomplish this. You can also consider investing in blue blocking glasses and wear those while you’re on your screens in the evening. Another way you can reduce screen time is by setting time restrictions on your apps to be more mindful. You can set a timer that will notify you when you have been on an app for 15 mins which will then give you the opportunity to close the app, put down your phone, and find a more productive task.
6. Set an intention. Everyday tasks can feel overwhelming when we are struggling with our mental health. When we find ourselves unable to complete tasks we can start to experience low self-worth and more symptoms of depression. Setting an intention for the day can focus our attention on one doable task. This can be something as simple as drinking water, running an errand, or taking medication. Completing a manageable task will increase feelings of self-confidence and provide a sense of accomplishment.
7. Practice gratitude. Studies show that practicing gratitude reduces stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms. Practicing gratitude changes your mindset, builds resilience, and helps you to see things more positively. One easy way to do this is first thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night, think of 5-10 things you are grateful for and either say them outloud or write them down. If you struggle to think of things, remember they can be as simple as hot showers, or the smell of freshly baked cookies. You’ll find that the more you do it, the easier it will be to think of things for which you are thankful.
8. Affirm yourself and others. Affirming yourself often feels awkward or uncomfortable, especially if you have a habit of negative self talk. Just like anything else, it becomes easier the more you do it over time. We believe what we repeat to ourselves, so the longer you affirm yourself, the more likely you will start to believe the things that you say. Examples of daily positive affirmations:
- I am enough.
- I am allowed to express my needs.
- I am getting better everyday, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
- I belong here and deserve to take up space.
- I am worthy of love.
- I am capable of doing hard things.
- I am giving myself permission to take time to heal.
- Today is an opportunity to grow and learn.
- My perspective is unique and important.
It’s easier to affirm other people than ourselves. Showing kindness improves well-being and increases happiness, so verbally expressing positive affirmations to those around us can also improve our mental health. Moreover, if you struggle to think of things to say to yourself but find it easy to say kind things to others, you can ask yourself – What would I say to a friend or loved one? – and this can help you get better at self-compassion.
9. Move your body. Exercise impacts the chemicals in your brain. It increases serotonin and endorphins and decreases stress hormones. It can also increase your energy level and appetite, while reducing tension. Exercise does not have to be strenuous or long. Walking and stretching can be great ways to start. If you’re someone who doesn’t exercise regularly, this may still seem daunting. The idea is just to get your body moving, so even doing household chores like vacuuming or sweeping can be beneficial. As you get more comfortable with movement, you can increase the intensity of the activity over time.
10. Ground yourself. Grounding is a technique that keeps you in the present. Grounding can help when you have ruminations or overwhelming feelings of anxiety or stress. There are many ways to ground yourself and redirect your attention back to your present environment. One effective way to ground is by engaging your five senses in the here and now. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
This is not an exhaustive list. There are many things you can do to improve your mental health that don’t take a lot of time or effort, in addition to getting other types of treatment. I hope these tips serve as additional support as you continue your mental health journey.